By bitting expert Lucy Nicholas
We have all seen the high profile cases within dressage competition, whereby a steward has noticed blood coming from a horse’s mouth. But what causes it? Typically, bleeding from the equine mouth is an indication of a wound to the inside of the mouth, or the horse or pony’s tongue.
Sometimes, this situation happens due to the unfortunate circumstance of a stressful incident or accidental heavy-handed rein use occurring under saddle. Bleeding may be caused by a slip or a trip whilst hacking or jumping, causing the horse to bite its own tongue. The horse or pony may alternatively stumble and cut their own lips.
The bit can sometimes cause rubs to the corners of the equine’s mouth and cut the gums, so this is an important site to check, if you ever see bleeding from the mouth. Always choose a top quality bit with no damage or rough areas – seek the advice of a bitting expert if required.
Horses that pull back when tied up with a bridle on, or those that step on the reins after a rider fall, can in extreme cases cause the bit to be forced into the tongue, resulting in it becoming cut, and some bleeding occurring.
Occasionally horses can lose a tooth, resulting in some blood in the mouth.
Rarely, bleeding from the mouth is a sign of a systemic blood clotting problem. In this case, it is often accompanied by blood loss from other body orifices, or other signs of severe illness.
If your horse appears to be bleeding from the mouth, it is important to first remove the bridle and carefully check the teeth and mouth. Remember, your horse may be distressed so whilst you will understandably be concerned, you must exercise caution when examining the mouth, so you don’t end up on the wrong end of those powerful teeth! If possible, it is wise to wear gloves.
If you are unable to find a cut resulting from a bite to the tongue or lips or the bit rubbing the corners of the mouth, it is important to contact your veterinarian who will conduct an examination, possibly with a dental gag on, to be able to examine the mouth more thoroughly.
The vet is also likely to assess the horse’s general health, paying particular attention to attitude, appetite, heart rate and rectal temperature to rule out body-wide bleeding problems, and then examine the mouth to find the source of the bleeding. Some mouth wounds in extreme circumstances might require stitches whilst the majority will heal well without treatment.
There are specific rules in jumping and eventing, but the guidelines in para-dressage and dressage are more ‘grey’ and subject to interpretation. FEI rules state that in minor cases of blood in the mouth, such as where a horse appears to have bitten its tongue or lip, officials may authorise the rinsing or wiping of the mouth and allow the rider to continue; although any further evidence of blood in the mouth will result in disqualification. Dressage guidelines for the Ground Jury at events also advise: ‘If a horse exhibits a sign that may indicate that it is no longer fit to compete during a competition, then it is the responsibility of the Ground Jury to stop the horse from the competition. After an assessment made by the Veterinary Delegate and Ground Jury, if bleeding has stopped and the horse is fit to continue to compete, then it may be permitted to do so.’
Lucy Nicholas is co-proprietor of The Saddlery Shop, the firm that won the 2017 British Equestrian Trade Association’s (BETA) SEIB Internet/Mail Order Retailer of the Year contest, voted by customers.